Sports

Highest Ratings in Five Years Suggest College Football Will Survive Era of Players Doing Instagram Ads for Car Dealerships

Swinney, wearing a white polo shirt and khakis, walks past a large yellow and black sign advertising Duke's Mayonnaise.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who infamously said he’d quit college football if it became professionalized, walks onto the field before last Saturday’s game against Georgia in Charlotte. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Until recently, when the NCAA was challenged on its right to enforce amateurism rules, its official legal position was that the concept of the unpaid student-athlete had value not just to players and universities but to spectators as well. The association argued that Americans watched college sports—despite its players being on average less skilled and athletic than professionals—because they supported the idea, popularized in modern times by the British upper class, that professionalism distorts the spirit of physical competition as a means of self-betterment that should rightly exist in harmonious proportion to moral and academic education.

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This historically pedigreed argument also existed in less official, more-sports-radio-friendly form as the position that athletes given the opportunity to attend an institution of higher learning via scholarship did not deserve (and should gratefully refrain from seeking) further compensation. To do so, it was often suggested by conservative-leaning football cultural figures like Tim Tebow and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, would demonstrate an off-putting sense of selfishness and “entitlement”—and possibly destroy the potential of individuals who were not personally capable of handling their own wealth. (Swinney, to be fair, has said he supports some forms of athlete compensation, but not salaries.) As NCAA punditry concern troll Doug Gottlieb once put it in an old column: “Kids have enough voices in their ears already. This would just add more—and when money is involved it will also increase the noise level.”

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In the past several years, many have claimed that activism by Black athletes—a phenomenon that includes, though is not limited to, the campaign against amateurism rules—was responsible for driving down TV ratings by alienating viewers who don’t want to be reminded of progressive viewpoints when they’re watching sports.

Well, this summer the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the NCAA’s argument that its opinion about why people watch college sports is sufficient justification for restricting the rights of its athletes. Then the push for compensation won its first major breakthrough when the chastened governing body—despite the Supreme Court case having technically been about a different and relatively minor issue—agreed to allow players to be paid (by third parties rather than athletic departments) for participating in advertisements and personal appearances. (This is referred to as “name, image, and likeness” compensation, or NIL.) Many, many athletes immediately began promoting their own merchandise, posing at auto dealerships in exchange for big trucks, selling autographs, and endorsing pet stores.

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So now we’ve witnessed a sort of natural experiment in whether the country’s sport watchers would be turned off by college students—many of whom spoke out about racial discrimination after the murder of George Floyd—having expensive cars and walking-around money. (Can you imagine?) Here are the results:

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This doesn’t prove that sports TV audiences approve of the end of amateurism per se. Ratings are almost certainly way up over 2020 because this year’s college football landscape involves full stadiums and teams playing normal schedules. Ratings are also probably up over 2019 and previous seasons because this year’s opening slate of games featured more competitive contests between higher-profile teams and because of new efforts to measure out-of-home viewership in bars and restaurants. (Nielsen rolled out so-called OOH ratings in 2020; they’ve increased live sports viewership numbers by about 10 percent.)

The ratings are, nonetheless, further proof that almost nothing—whether it’s NIL, politically divisive post-Kaepernick activism, or the eradication of historic rivalries because of TV incentives—is actually capable of keeping Americans from watching a whole lot of football. We are hogs for the pigskin, and nothing can keep us from the trough. It’s one of the few things that, regardless of our political beliefs, truly holds us together!

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